Relatively few actors are able to seamlessly go back and forth between comedy and drama, but Adam Sandler is one of them. Best known for his successful brand of inane comedies, he’s also starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems, and the Netflix basketball drama Hustle, so he’s got bona fides on both sides.
His latest film, Spaceman, might be his biggest stretch yet, though. He plays Jakub Prochazka, a Czech astronaut (sans accent) who’s been sent on a solo mission to Jupiter to collect particles of something called the Chopra Cloud. Naturally, the trip has kept him away from home for a long time, and his wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan) has grown disenchanted in his absence despite being pregnant with his baby.
It’s established early on that he’s supremely lonely, and his haggard look indicates that he’s sleep-deprived. This could be the reason that he starts imagining a gigantic talking spider that he calls Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano), which says it’s been studying Jakub’s loneliness. As he becomes enthralled with what Hanus is telling him about his present and his past, Jakub becomes increasingly distant from the people trying to guide him on his mission.
Directed by Johan Renck and written by Colby Day, the film is a perplexing choice by Sandler, and anyone else involved with it. Unlike most of his other movies, this one is as artsy as they get, featuring all mood and no action. In fact, it contains a number of enigmatic scenes that seem more designed to frustrate the viewer than to actually tell an interesting story.
There is lots of talk about the romance that Jakub and Lenka used to have, but the flashback scenes that show their life together are impossible to decode. It doesn’t help that those scenes are shown through a weird, blurry filter that almost makes it look like we’re viewing it through water. Clearly Renck wants to indicate the types of scenes being shown, but the execution leaves something to be desired.
The film also fails to answer a lot of storytelling questions. Why would you use only one man for a mission to Jupiter? The movie is based on a book by Czech author Jaroslav Kalfar, but what compelled the filmmakers to keep the characters as Czech when they’re being portrayed by an American and a Brit, both using their normal accents? And what the hell is going on with the spider, whose presence seems to go back to Jakub’s childhood?
As mentioned, Sandler has proven before that he knows how to carry a drama, but that is not the case here. Mostly confined to the spaceship, he never gets a chance to spread his wings, and the subdued nature of the role doesn’t do him any favors. Mulligan is a great actor, but there is no emotional connection to her part, and her performance also suffers. Dano, Isabella Rossellini, and Lena Olin are present, but fail to make an impact.
Anyone logging on to Netflix and hoping to find another wacky Adam Sandler comedy will be in for a rude awakening with Spaceman. Even those who are fans of his dramatic work will wonder why he decided to make this particular movie, or why anyone involved thought it would turn out well at all.
Spaceman debuts on Netflix on March 1.